By Luke Popovich

If the pundits and prognosticators are on the mark, the mid-term elections will dampen if not douse completely any enthusiasm in the 112th Congress for new legislative attacks on fossil energy industries such as ours. Remember “it’s the economy, stupid”?  Well, it still is. That’s largely why Republicans are expected to strengthen their grip on Congress, and together with coal-state Democrats, end legislative threats to coal mining, coal ash and coal-based generation for now.

But the threat to coal won’t end; it will just intensify across town—to its new home in the regulatory agencies. Well known examples are the EPA’s new water quality guidelines for valley fill permits, its proposals for regulating coal ash as a hazardous material and its rules for controlling greenhouse gas emissions from coal-based power plants, which will soon be finalized. Then there is OSM’s intention to tighten regulations over mining impacts on streams and MSHA’s heightened fines and inspections for alleged safety violations.

Less well known, but potentially more threatening to U.S. coal, are the welter of new air quality rules the EPA is preparing. Some observers who’ve run the numbers conclude they could pose a greater threat to the coal community—to production and employment both—than the cap-and-trade controls Congress dreamed up. At the very least, their impact will be felt sooner.

You probably haven’t heard so much about air quality rules because they’re fiendishly difficult to understand. Try reading about Prevention of Significant Deterioration and see how long you stay awake. But these rules will be damaging to coal nonetheless because they set emissions standards for pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury and particulate matter that will be difficult if not impossible for many older coal-based power plants to meet. Installing multi-million dollar clean coal technologies like scrubbers on older plants doesn’t make economic sense, so utilities will shutter many of the estimated 400 coal units at risk and switch to cleaner but costlier fuels like natural gas.  

For the NMA, the issue isn’t whether pollutants like SO2, NOx and mercury should be controlled or even revised periodically. Obviously air pollutants—at certain exposures—pose health hazards; so does driving your car and drinking alcohol, yet both are popular pastimes in Washington. The issue is at what point do controls make sense and at what cost.  

We can conceivably drive concentrations of air pollutants down to zero if we’re willing to accept a medieval lifestyle. The Sudan has great air quality but we hear the quality of life there isn’t so great. This gets to the heart of our objections to the EPA’s proposed air standards. There is too little common sense or balance in them. For example, the EPA relies on scientific evidence that does not justify the tightened regulations it would clamp on power plants. The NMA also questions the agency’s transparency. The EPA asked the public to comment on a standard derived from traditional monitoring of actual emissions, then later decided to model emissions rather than actually measure them, a change that may result in a stricter standard than any it originally proposed.

This air raid on coal plants may sound theoretical, but the consequences are not. Proposed rules for reducing mercury emissions and conventional pollutants would drop annual coal consumption by more than 133 million tons and cost up to 50,000 jobs. The EPA misses this cumulative impact altogether because it doesn’t look for it. Instead, the EPA, from 30,000 feet, looks at the impact of each rule separately and concludes the cost of each is acceptable. But industry, at ground zero, feels these costs cumulatively.  Small wonder it finds the costs unacceptable as it bears them all. That’s why the NMA has asked the EPA to examine cumulative costs, the way they are measured in the real world.

Just last month, the EPA itself reported in the past decade, U.S. power plants cut their SO2 emissions by almost two-thirds and their NOx emissions by more than two-thirds—at the same time coal-based generation capacity grew by a third. More coal, less pollution.

Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.